Monday, February 15, 2010


People understand me so poorly that they don't even understand my complaint about them not understanding me. – S. Kierkegaard

Long ago, I was assigned to read a book in college called Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. One of the major discussion points about that story was Sterne’s use of the “hobby-horse” to describe a private obsession someone might have about which they tend to go on and on in a conversation. I believe, if memory serves me, that the characters in the book may have had only one hobby-horse each, perhaps to simplify the issue. Sterne was greatly influenced by the works of John Locke, who believed that every person lives in his or her own little world, communicating and interpreting everything based on their own thought obsessions. He saw this as why people having conversations frequently feel misunderstood, given they are talking about something from two totally different perspectives. I think he also attempted to explain why people get so offended in personal debates, how they think their hobby-horse is being insulted or attacked when it hasn’t even being considered. In Tristram Shandy, hobby-horses tend to give people something to focus on in order to keep from looking at themselves. They might even begin to see it as themselves.
I didn’t really care for the story itself, but the idea of the hobby-horse stuck with me all these years. I was reminded of it yesterday.

I was having a pleasant discussion with a family member whom I love dearly, and whom I consider my most treasured friend. We can have spirited debates and always come away still devoted to each other, which we have been doing since I was a child. One of the wonderful things about conversations with family members and old friends is that they teach you how to recognize when a hobby-horse has entered the room. There is a feeling that takes over the conversation when one of those blasted things pokes its nose in. Personally, I think people have multiple hobby-horses and I think they ride different ones with different people.

My dear sister was somehow led to get on her medical hobby-horse. She knows a lot about and thinks a lot about diseases, medical procedures, and tests. She goes to doctors when she has a feeling that there is something wrong. There is nothing the matter with that, if it is what she chooses to do. I, personally, tend to try and diagnose myself and I use Reiki and positive affirmations, herbs, exercise, or whatever seems appropriate to rid myself of bothersome symptoms. I’ve rid myself of many problems in just that way.

I know that most of the world, faced with a jumpy feeling in the chest, or a severe pain in the shoulder or knee, would immediately make an appointment with a doctor. I don’t do that and I’m sure that a majority of the medical professionals out there would say that it’s an insane way to behave. I guess that’s why one of the hobby-horses people saddle up and ride hard around me is the “doctor” issue. I don’t mind really. I don’t argue or tell them that I think they are wrong – I wouldn’t dare! I just tell them I won’t go to a doctor unless I think I have to, and that’s that. The conversation ends until they decide to get on it again.

Now, I am trying to think, what are my hobby-horses? Do I have more than one and do I use them to stand in for who I am? Do I get on and ride whenever the opportunity arises? Do I ever find myself embroiled in some frustrating conversation because someone is riding their hobby-horse and I’m on mine and we just don’t understand each other at all? Seems like maybe the answer to that is yes, though not so often anymore.

I know that I’ve had times in my life when I’ve had thoughts about not being understood. It probably happens every day. Half the time people don’t understand simply because they aren’t listening – they’re busy thinking about what they want to say next. Truly, there are only a few instances when it is absolutely necessary to make people understand something, such as in cases of emergency, issues of planning, legal defense, instructional issues, and practical instances like that.

Maybe releasing the need to be understood is the key. Maybe if I don’t ever care to defend my point of view, if I don’t ever think to try and convince someone to believe the way I do, I can be rid of the hobby-horse forever.

How wonderfully good and free that feels to imagine that!